Aiming to Be a Zero: The Ultimate Open Source Philosophy


Guy Martin, Director of the Open@ADSK initiative at Autodesk, had two dreams growing up  to be either an astronaut or a firefighter. Martin has realized his second dream through his work as a volunteer firefighter with Cal Fire, but his love for space is what led to “Aiming to Be an Open Source Zero,” the talk he will be delivering at Open Source Summit NA.  

Martin has more than two decades of experience in the software industry, helping companies understand, contribute to, and better leverage open source software. He has held senior open source roles with Samsung Research, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems, among others, and is a frequent speaker at conferences.

During his stint at Samsung, on a long flight to South Korea, Martin read An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield to pass the time. In the book, Hadfield talks about his philosophy for getting along and working with others. Simply put, in aiming to be a zero, Hadfield built credibility with others and was eventually able to show them that he was a +1. He recounts stories of fellow astronauts who never flew in space because they kept trying to show that they were +1s, but in reality their attitudes made them -1s.

“This made me realize that large companies who are getting into open source for the first time often think that they can ‘buy’ influence, or that their reputation in the industry means that open source projects/communities should listen to them. Now, we know that’s not the case, but until I read Hadfield’s book, I never knew how to effectively explain that to people,” said Martin.

Here, Martin explains more about this philosophy and how it applies to open source. Can you explain the title of your talk? What does “being a zero” mean?

Martin: Aiming to be a zero means that you aren’t coming into a new situation (or open source community) intent on proving your value at the expense of understanding the dynamics of the people involved. Trying to be a +1 without sufficient understanding of what was done before you arrived can make you appear arrogant and out of touch, or worse, can make you an active detractor (-1) to that community.

Aiming to be a zero gives you the right balance between trying to do too much and doing too little. Once you have proven your value to the community, your ability to showcase +1 talents becomes easier. What was the inspiration behind this philosophy?

Martin: I can’t take credit for that  Col. Chris Hadfield (the first Canadian astronaut to command an International Space Space mission) speaks about it in his amazing book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. I read this book on an international flight, and it literally changed my perspective on working with communities and helping individuals and companies understand how to get the most out of (and contribute to) open source projects. You have two passions firefighting and space. How does aiming to be a zero fit in the firefighting scenario?

Martin: Despite the fact that fire departments are paramilitary organizations in nature, with clear chains of command and hierarchical organization, the bedrock of firefighting is community/family. We support each other in incredibly difficult times and celebrate in joyous times.

To do that, and to build up the trust needed to rely on each other in all situations, you have to start out as a zero  offer to do the dirty work, learn from others, and most importantly listen and understand the dynamics of the team. The fire ground, just like space, can be an unforgiving place. Thankfully, people are unlikely to die in open source communities, but the lessons learned from space travel and firefighting translate well when you are considering how to bring a diverse group of people together to solve big challenges. What problems do you see in the open source world where you think being zero is the right approach?

Martin: Despite the prevalence of open source in all aspects of our lives, and in devices of all sizes and shapes, there are still companies and individuals who see open source projects and communities as something strictly to consume from, without necessarily giving back to.

Now, they aren’t obligated in most cases to give back, but, inevitably, someone finds a bug, or needs a feature, and all too often, the approach is to come in with requirements or assert their +1 status (usually related to their company’s size or market value) and expect the community to just kowtow to their demands. I’ve seen it throughout my career, and while I always understood that wasn’t a good approach, it wasn’t until I read Hadfield’s book that I truly understood how to talk about this and relate it to people and companies in a way that was likely to get results. Can you give an example of how aiming for +1 damages companies and the community?

Martin: I won’t give specific company names (for obvious reasons :)), but I can say that I’ve witnessed engineers from large multinational companies being asked by their superiors to “just get this feature into the open source project” or to “land x number of patches in this community so that we can get influence.”

Although there is nothing wrong with landing patches to help gain strategic influence in a project, if the goal is to push in a ton of mediocre patches in hopes that the company’s name will sway the community to go in a particular direction, then that is a clear example of attempting to be a +1 before you’ve gained the trust of the community by being a zero and contributing in a way that benefits both the company and the community.

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